Jersey City $15 Rallies: Divisions in the Movement

Organizations like $15 Now have the potential to be long-term, cross-sectional coalitions of the working class, writes Peter Moody

Set pieces or class movement (image via @JennaBPope)

On Sunday, April 3rd, the 15NowNJ coalition held a rally and march in Jersey City as part of the ongoing campaign to bring the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.  Drawing about sixty participants from numerous supporting organizations on a cold and blustery day, as well as gaining strong notes of support from passers-by, the rally was significant in that it was one of the first major actions by the coalition after members of the state legislature announced plans to introduce legislation which would slowly raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over the course of the next decade, while at the same time the mayors of several New Jersey municipalities – including Jersey City – have introduced a $15 an hour minimum wage for all city workers.  While several of the speakers made note of these initiatives as limited and partial victories, all at the rally made clear that these proposals were insufficient at best, and reiterated the point behind the demand for $15 now – “the rent won’t wait!”

The dichotomy between these two tendencies within the broader movement that’s working towards raising the minimum wage was certainly apparent at the rally, albeit primarily in the absence of major union attendance or support from the more cautious and piecemeal-progress wing of the movement.  Presumably there will be rallies and actions supported by those in the legislature looking for set-pieces to preen in front of, but an independent movement run by workers and the left in New Jersey is unlikely to be a component of their campaign.

Thus, through the absence of a wider union presence, the necessity of organizations like 15Now and its endorsers becomes clear – to be a long-term coalition with the potential to involve all sections of the working class in New Jersey to both fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, but also to connect this particular demand with other campaigns that are waging both defensive fights against cuts in schools and public services, as well as more forward-oriented struggles to build organizations that New Jersey workers can use to both strengthen their own positions and seriously grapple with a wide range of political, economic, and social questions that will inevitably arise as these campaigns continue.

One of these questions was touched on, if indirectly, by speakers from Anakbayan and other groups that organize among the Filipino community in New Jersey.  While speaking about the importance of a $15 an hour minimum wage to assist the Filipino-American community, they also connected their existence in the country in the first place to the United States’ imperial policy towards the Philippines, intervening politically (and often militarily) with the assistance of their supporters in the Philippines to keep wages low and conditions poor, thus providing American and other companies a source of cheaper labor than can be found in their own countries, which in turn puts pressure on workers in those countries to accept concessions of their own for the sake of “national competitiveness.”  As more than one speaker said at the rally, an injury to one is an injury to all.

Unfortunately, the converse is not necessarily true; a victory for one – be it workers in one industry or sector, or in a given state or country – is rarely a victory for all because of the divisions imposed upon the working class by its masters.  This has been shown repeatedly by legislation in other states which has introduced $15 an hour minimum wage laws, often exempting tipped workers, having slower phase-in times for workers in small businesses or workers in less urban areas.  And even if 15NowNJ were to be immediately successful in its primary goal and the state’s minimum wage were to increase to $15 an hour tomorrow, workers in the other forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and other US territories, not to mention workers internationally, would not directly benefit.

This is not to say that fighting for $15 is not worthwhile; success in New Jersey could provide inspiration for similar campaigns in other states, and workers having more money in their pockets means a greater ability to sustain themselves, which can translate into workers having the time and energy to grapple with the broader social questions alluded to above.  But, every local or sectoral struggle, even victorious ones, need to be understood in the broader context of global working-class struggle against capitalism and for its own liberation.  It is that struggle that all others ultimately depend on, and which requires socialists and communists to work as strong fighters and critical thinkers to connect these smaller-scale fights to their final victory.